October 2016: Issue #3  -  American Volunteers
World War I changed everything. Let's change how students think about American Volunteerism.

Welcome to Understanding the Great War. Each issue includes articles, lessons, teaching guidelines, and primary sources that you can freely use. Normally arriving in your inbox on the third Tuesday of every other month, our next issue will be a little early due to the holidays. Issue #4, Trench Life and the Christmas Truce, will be distributed on Tuesday, Dec. 6.

"A number of motives impelled me, by far the greater part being idealistic. [...] At a time when the destiny of humanity is in the hands of soldiers I felt that anything else a man could do would be less than being a soldier."
- Alan Seeger, from the American's September 5, 1914 letter to his mother informing her of his enlistment in the French Foreign Legion

Individual Americans immediately volunteered for humanitarian and military service after World War I broke out in 1914, primarily with the Allies. While the United States government sought to avoid the conflict, these Americans volunteered as ambulance and truck drivers, hospital workers, flyers, doctors and nurses. Some crossed into Canada to receive military training and were sent to Europe to fight under Allied flags. Others joined the French Foreign Legion.

Their motives were varied. They volunteered for adventure. They volunteered to see the world, even one torn by war. They volunteered for the better good. They volunteered because their friends did. They volunteered because they wanted to make a difference.

In this 10-minute YouTube video, The Great War Channel explores the political, cultural, and social climate in the United States prior to their entry into World War I on April 6, 2017. Show host Indy Neidell narrates this overview of the Mexican Revolution, economic repercussions of the war, diplomatic responses, humanitarian efforts, and more.

Despite President Woodrow Wilson's request that Americans remain "neutral in thought and in action," ordinary people responded actively during the first two years of the Great War. During the National World War I Museum and Memorial's 2014 Symposium (1914: Global War & American Neutrality), Dr. Christopher Capozzola explored the varied American responses to the war in this 55-minute recorded presentation on YouTube.

The Library of Congress provides a sampling of newspaper articles about the American Red Cross during the Great War in the Chronicling America: American Historic Newspapers digital collection.

This photograph is courtesy of the Archives of the American Field Service
and AFS Intercultural Programs. View more photos from WWI  in their archive.

The Volunteers: Americans Join World War I, 1914-1919 is a set of lesson plans created by AFS Intercultural Programs in partnership with the National World War I Museum and Memorial and Primary Source. These lessons from The Volunteers examine the different ways American women volunteered during the Great War. Students learn how women's volunteer work challenged the idea of a woman's "proper" role in society as well as the effects of the Great War on the women's suffrage movement.

"Some of us can remember when the bare idea of a lady doctor seemed preposterous. It was as preposterous to us then as the Army doctress is now to atavistic generals. But women doctors are here. There seems to be no lack of efficiency in their diagnosis or treatment of cases in spite of the fact that they wear skirts."
- An excerpt from the Oregon Daily Journal, as reprinted in The Woman's Medical Journal, July 1918
At the start of the war, the American Hospital of Paris set up a 600-bed military hospital and ambulance service that cared for tens of thousands of wounded soldiers. In this article, sponsored by France's Mission Du Centenaire 14-18 and the U.S. WWI Centennial Commission, Paris Institute of Political Studies lecturer Dr. Ellen Hampton provides a look at the hospital's volunteers.

An excerpt from the essay U.S. American Volunteers in World War I, 1914-1917, by PD Dr. Axel Jansen, deputy director of the German Historical Institute, Washington, D.C.

While the number of volunteers during the neutrality period is relatively small when compared to the number of Americans who volunteered after April 1917, a closer look at the motives of individuals to join the war and relief efforts sheds light on an important watershed in U.S. history.

By the early 20th century, the United States had become an economic powerhouse but it retained a policy of political detachment from Europe. During the period of U.S. neutrality, American volunteers abroad strengthened informal ties with France and her allies and challenged their country's neutrality.

Even though some of them were ambivalent about American entry into the war, they in fact helped promote and legitimize its international engagement.

The Lafayette Escadrille was a French flying squadron comprised of American volunteers. These volunteers captured the imaginations of the American public when local newspapers printed stories of their daring missions. A selection of these newspaper articles are also available in the Chronicling America: American Historic Newspapers digital collection from the Library of Congress.

1918 Poster issued by the American Committee for Relief in the Near East, part of a 
groundswell of humanitarian aid from American citizens.
Image courtesy of the National World War I Museum and Memorial.
Starting in early 1915, Ottoman Turks began expelling and killing hundreds of thousands of Armenians in the first major genocide of the 20th century. The lesson plan American Response to the Armenian Genocide from Facing History and Ourselves explores American responses, both government and humanitarian, to the Armenian Genocide and asks students to analyze the larger question of U.S. intervention in another nation's internal affairs.

Visit for more education resources that you can use free of charge and see the Understanding the Great War newsletter archive.

The United States World War One Centennial Commission and the National World War I Museum and Memorial are dedicated to educating the public about the causes, events, and consequences of the conflict and we encourage the use of these resources to better understand the Great War and its enduring impact on the global community.

Partners on this project include:
The Pritzker Military Museum and Library is a founding sponsor of the United States World War One Centennial Commission.